Talmud takes up the subject of the use of the vernacular, as opposed to Hebrew, in tractate Sotah. The mishnah in Sotah 32a, at the beginning of chapter 7, informs us that certain prayers and rituals may be recited in the vernacular, while others must be recited only in Hebrew, “the holy tongue.” The mishnah begins with those that may be recited in any language:
The following may be recited in any language: the passage concerning the suspected adulteress, the confession made at the presentation of the tithe [Dt. 26:13ff], the Shema, the Tefilah [the Amidah], Birkat HaMazon [grace after meals], the oath concerning testimony [against the withholding of evidence], and the oath concerning a deposit [that it had not been misappropriated]. (Sotah 32a)The Sages discuss the Shema on daf 32a and 32b, providing a marvelous example of Talmudic argumentation and interpretation. Rabbi Yehudah haNasi holds that the three paragraphs of Shema, recited morning and night, must be prayed in Hebrew because Torah says “these words shall be” and the emphatic “these” means just as these words are written – in Hebrew. The Sages, however, hold that “Hear [O Israel]” means that the Shema may be recited in any language the worshiper speaks and comprehends.
The Shema. Whence do we know this [that Shema may be recited in any language]? As it is written: Hear, O Israel [Dt. 6:4] [means] in whatever language you understand.The Sages next explain that if Rabbi is relying on “and these words shall be” to limit the recitation of the Shema to Hebrew, and the Sages are pegging permission to the vernacular on “Hear,” we must explore how “and these words shall be” is interpreted by the Rabbis, and how “Hear” is understood by Rabbi. The first step is to ask how the Rabbis understand “and these words shall be”:
Our Rabbis taught: Shema must be recited as it is written [i.e. in Hebrew]. Such is the statement of Rabbi [Yehudah haNasi] but the Sages say: in any language.
What is Rabbi's reason? Scripture declares, And [these words] shall be [Dt. 6:6] [meaning] they must remain as they are.
And [what is the reason of] the Rabbis? Scripture declares, Hear, O Israel [meaning] in any language you understand.
But for the Rabbis it is likewise written: And [these words] shall be! That indicates that one may not read it in the wrong order.The Sages, we are told, learn from “and these words shall be” that one must recite the verses of the Shema in the prescribed order. It makes sense, then, to ask whence Rabbi Yehudah haNasi knows this rule. The answer is that “these” provides the emphasis that conveys correct order. If that is the case, what do the Sages make of “these”? We are told: nothing.
Then whence does Rabbi derive the rule that one may not read it in the wrong order? From the fact that the text uses these words and not merely words.
And the Rabbis? [What meaning do they ascribe to these words?] They draw no inference from the use of these words instead of words.
Above we learned that the Sages derive permission to pray the Shema in the vernacular from “Hear” – in whatever language you hear and comprehend. Having asked what the Rabbis do with “these,” it makes sense to now to ask what Rabbi Yehudah haNasi does with “Hear.” The answer is that for Rabbi, “Hear” means that I should recite the Shema audibly enough that I hear my own words (but not so loudly as to intrude on the prayers of others). The Sages agree with Rabbi.
But for Rabbi it is likewise written: Hear! He requires that for the rule: Make audible to your ears what you utter with your lips.The problem of language is a perennial one. Sotah discusses at length what may be recited in the vernacular and what may not. In general, instructions and prayers may be recited in the vernacular, but public rituals and formal rites must be recited in the original Hebrew. Prayer should not be formulaic, even if the prayers are prescribed. Prayer should be an experience in self-transformation, in which we reach into the deepest part of our soul, evaluate, and grow. We can hear God speak to us through the prayers. The term hitpallel (“to pray”) comes from the root meaning “inspect” or “judge” and since it is couched in the reflexive, it means “to inspect or judge oneself.” That is such a personal and intimate religious act that language should never be a barrier. For those who understand and are comfortable with Hebrew, all is fine. But for those who wish to use the vernacular, the goal of lehitpallel takes precedence. Happily, God is multilingual.
And the Rabbis? [Do they also require that the Shema be recited audibly?] They agree with him who said that if one has not recited the Shema audibly he has fulfilled his obligation.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman